My Mom and I had the good fortune of being invited to a lavish Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner at the home of our friends, James & Elizabeth Wong, who had rushed back from a stay in Hong Kong to prepare and host the dinner for a small group of family and friends.
As dictated by Chinese tradition and superstition, there are a host of dishes to be served and eaten during the Chinese New Year season – starting on Chinese New Year Eve and continuing through the 15th day after New Year’s Day with the celebration of the Lantern Festival. These dishes are thought to bring good luck during the year, based on their names or appearance. There are many lists and examples presented on the Internet.
The dishes James & Elizabeth provided showed their particular thought and care, not only for the symbolism of the names and ingredients of the dishes, but also for their appearance and actual taste.They were so special that we asked James if he would provide detailed descriptions to accompany the photos we took of the dishes. Together, they document a 5 1/2 hour dinner that offers to bring extraordinary auspiciousness to all the participants.
Our first wine: NV Bollinger Champagne Special Cuvée Brut as an aperitif, which we enjoyed while James was cooking.
🐖紅燒乳豬 • Roasted Suckling Pig
The culinary history of a roasted pig in China goes back more than 1,400 years. From the Southern and Northern Periods 南北朝, records showed 22 different recipes to roast a pig. In central and southern China, it is customary that a roasted pig is presented to the ancestors on Ching Ming Festival 清明節 (Tomb Sweeping Day). The tradition of consuming a roasted pig during a large family gathering extended beyond the Tomb Sweeping Day and the pig is nowadays featured wherever there is a major celebration or a feast, particularly in Cantonese communities.
This 1995 vintage Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, while aged, still drank beautifully and went nicely with the lusciousness of the Roasted Suckling Pig.
🥬發財好市 • Braised Dried Oysters (蠔豉) with Black Moss Seaweed (髮菜), Lettuce (生菜) and Dried Chinese Shiitake Mushrooms
This is a traditional New Year dish in Cantonese speaking communities. It is invariably featured in New Year meals at home and in restaurants. Most of the ingredients rhyme with phrases of good fortune in the Cantonese dialect. The homonyms are 發財~髮菜 (make a fortune)；好市~蠔豉 (good business)；生財~生菜 (grow a fortune)
🐟漁人得利 • Steamed Fish Filet with Sliced Pork Tongue
From the idiom 年年有餘 (surplus every year), fish (魚) has become an essential food ingredient around the New Year because 魚 and 餘 are homonyms. (Usually the fish is not eaten but carried over to the new year to symbolize surplus. We had leftover fish!) Tongue (脷) is another popular food ingredient in New Year meals because 脷 and 利, meaning profit or benefit, are also homonyms. This homonym pair works only in Cantonese because in Mandarin, tongue is written as 舌 and pronounced differently. Note that tongue is usually mixed in and cooked with the oyster dish described above (發財好市 ，生財大利 lettuce and large tongue).
I picked the name 漁人得利 for this dish because it contains homonyms for both surplus (漁=魚 and 餘) and profit (利 and 脷). The phrase came from the second part of the idiom 鷸蚌相爭、漁人得利, which literally means “when the snipe and the clam fight, the fisherman nets the benefits (both the clam and the snipe)”. The story – when two sides quarrel, it is always the third party who benefits – on which this idiom is based (https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/鷸蚌相爭，漁人得利) dates back to the Warring States period of ancient Chinese history. I created this dish a few years ago not just because it features two popular New Year food ingredients (fish and tongue) but to remind myself to be in harmony with others (和氣), living up to the New Year idiom 和氣生財 (peace brings money).
A wonderful 2007 Jacques Bavard Bourgogne-Aligoté Puligny-Montrachet to accompany the Braised Dried Oysters and Steamed Fish Filet
🐓薑蓉鹽焗雞 • Chicken Baked in Salt, served with Minced Ginger Sauce
Chicken is not an everyday dish in southern China and is reserved for special occasion meals. Chicken baked in salt is a famous 東江 and 客家 Hakka dish originated more than 300 years ago from the salt fields of Guangdong Province, it is nowadays seldom prepared at home and not often found on restaurants menus (unless preordered a day in advance).
清炒蘆筍 • Sautéed Asparagus
Just using up surplus asparagus from an upcoming dish. Read on for hidden meaning!
🥕🥒葡汁焗六蔬 • Baked Six Vegetables in a Mild Portuguese Curry Sauce(西蘭花、台山菜花、紅蘿蔔、夏南瓜、蘑菇、洋蔥)
This dish usually features 4 vegetables. However, four 四 rhymes with 死, which means death, and thus not a good omen for the New Year. Therefore 2 vegetables were added to make the number 6 六 which rhymes with 祿 (福祿壽), meaning blessings, happiness and prosperity.
🥩燒烤肋眼牛扒 • Broiled Ribeye Cap Steak, served with Tricolor Sweet Peppers
Beef is not a traditional Chinese New Year dinner dish. But we were celebrating New Year in New York ….
2012 Cantine San Marzano Collezione Cinquanta Salento IGT
1996 Château Gruaud Larose
Two nice reds to accompany the delicious steak and vegetables.
🏎一路順暢 • Grilled Asparagus with Chinese Sausage
The name of the dish literally means “one smooth journey”. The word play here is that 路順 (smooth road) and 蘆筍 (asparagus) are homonyms, as well as 暢 (unobstructed) and 腸 (sausage). The ingredients were plated in straight lines in foil trays to emphasize smoothness.
臘味飯 • Rice Cooked with Steamed Assorted Air-dried Meats
Steaming rice with the Assorted Air-dried Meats gives the rice a delicious flavor and aroma from the meats.
🥥椰汁年糕 • Coconut Flavored Glutinous New Year Cake
“Chinese New Year cakes can be eaten year round, but traditionally, they’re served around Chinese New Year to celebrate the holiday. In Mandarin it’s called 年糕 (Niángāo) and the literal transition of that is Year Cake. Because the second word 糕 also sounds like the word “higher” in Chinese, it was thought to be a lucky food as eating cake would help you achieve a higher status or prosperity.” (From Angel Wong’s Kitchen http://www.angelwongskitchen.com)
🍊水果 • Fruits (Tangerines 柑 and Persimmons)
柑 and 金 (gold) are homonyms. Also, the golden orange color of tangerines and persimmons symbolized a bowl of gold.
Thank you, James & Elizabeth, for such an auspicious welcome to the Year of the Pig!